Wednesday, 29 May 2013
I must say, I am tardy yet again, Smack! Smack! but life has been a bit full these days. I have finally put A Chinese Odyssey - The Ming Admiral - into a pdf file and sent that to my greatest critic, my daughter Melanie who doesn't mind telling her mother where to shove it. And she likes it!!! So am most encouraged and am thinking of entering it for the Kobo Writing Competition. Apart from the prize money, which will fund my next research trip to Malaysia, it will be great on the CV, won't it?
Don't know about you people up in the Northern Hemisphere, but way down here in old NZ we are freezing! In Auckland, I drove through a hail and sleet storm just two days ago. And right now am writing this dressed in 3 layers of woolies, two pairs of socks and am sitting in front of a radiator with a rug over my legs.! At this time of year, I long for summer. Am thinking of India.
Anyway, here is the final episode in A MAID I KNEW. I must tell you, she is based on a real maid I knew when growing up in Malaya. Wherever she is now, I wish her well, even though I know she has no English and would not be reading this. I hope you empathise with her.
Continuing A Maid I Knew.
When I was ten, my parents took a vacation abroad – to New Zealand. “We’ll be gone for only three weeks,” Mother told us before they drove off to the airport. “Kai Cheh will look after you.”
Well, Kai Cheh decided to take a holiday too -- from cooking. Most days she told Lan to take me out for meals, paid for from the housekeeping money. Lan was growing bigger by the year and her chest had expanded until she could fit Mother’s cast-offs without any alterations needed. It seemed my parents’ absence was the nexus she needed to blossom into the glamorous young woman she secretly hankered to be.
These frequent outings necessitated in her dressing up – but not in Mother’s cast-offs. She raided Mother’s wardrobe and vanity, and turned herself into a small-town’s replica of the current leading movie stars from Hong Kong. We sneaked out as Kai Cheh snored on, caught a bus into town and wandered the streets window-shopping; with Lan preening at her reflection in the shop windows we passed. I followed her self-appraisal, watched her painted face; powdered, rouged and lip-sticked and attracting a lot of strange attention. I worried about being discovered.
“Lan, look,” I would whisper, “that man’s staring at you. What will we do if he approaches us?” I would tug at her, or rather, Mother’s dress.
“Let him try,” was the pert answer as she flicked her hair, fingered Mother’s costume jewellery around her neck or from her ears and we would move on. Each time, I fancied, her gait became swingier and her hips swayed more provocatively on Mother’s high heels as the eyes followed her.
Somehow, most of our evenings would end with dinner in a small eatery with a newly acquainted ‘uncle’ who paid the bill at the finish. I would concentrate on eating, trying to be oblivious of the noise around us – the clanging of the woks, the loud conversations of the other diners, the shouting of the cooks’ assistants as they relayed orders to the back. Lan and her new friend concentrated on each other, oblivious to everybody else, including me. Then when it was time to catch the bus home, I would be given a trinket by the friend and a ‘Don’t tell your mother,’ instruction by Lan.
My parents’ return was greeted noisily by Kai Cheh who assured them of my good behaviour. Mother did not notice if anything in her wardrobe or vanity had been tampered with. I was happy and very relieved that I could eat dinner at home as normal. Lan did not have the chance to dress up for town again. Not that I knew. But her night-time stories became less frequent.
Two years later my family re-located to Wellington where Papa had a job at the city council. Mother opened a flower shop on Lambton Quay, specialising in Ikebana displays for hotels and restaurants. I was put into Wellington Girls’ High. It seemed their holiday in New Zealand was to reconnoitre as to the suitability of the country to emigrate to. Obviously, New Zealand had won them over. I had bidden Kai Cheh and Lan a tearful farewell but since neither of them could read or write in any language, I could not write to them in the only one I could, English.
My new life provided many wonderful diversions which soon recessed Lan into the memories of my childhood. Three years later, we went back for a holiday during which Mother and Aunt Lily took me shopping at the bazaar. There I spotted Lan, fully made up, teetering on high heels, hand in hand with a man.
“Lan! Lan! It’s me!” I waved excitedly and ran across to them.
“Oh, Lengleng, how are you?” Her off-hand, flaccid greeting evaporated my joy.
I saw the look pass between them and any curiosity about him died in my heart. Then I waved across to Mother and Aunt Lily, whose disapproving face plainly told me she was talking about Lan. I saw the shock on Mother’s.
That evening I overheard Mother tell Papa, “…it appeared that soon after we left, the poor girl took to prostitution…”
Lan had sold herself for a life of cheap cafe meals and colourful bibs and bobs.
A new story next week. I hope you have all enjoyed this.
Sunday, 12 May 2013
I think I missed blogging last week. So I must get this in as life will hot up again soon. The Auckland Readers & Writers' festival will begin this weekend and I am volunteering to help with ushering. It is my first time doing this, so it will be a very learning experience. For a small country New Zealand has a lot of writers, readers and in general a good literary scene.
Last Tuesday was the launch of MEMORIES IN THE BONE, my first novel, at Takapuna Library.
It was marvellous, and we even had a pianist -- who turned the event into a soiree enjoyed by all.
And last Sunday and yesterday, the Auckland Symphony Orchestra, in which I play violin, had its free concerts at the Bruce Mason Centre and the Town Hall. Superb. It is truly wonderful to give free symphonic music to the community. There is nothing like the joy of playing and the joy of recieving good music.
Now I shall post the following installment of A MAID I KNEW. Enjoy.
It was two days later before I allowed Lan to touch me. Under Kai Cheh’s instructions, she cleaned the house before rousing me for my bath. I stood naked in the wet-floor bathroom while she scooped cool water over me from the large, ceramic cistern, which held enough water for me to swim in, not that I was allowed. Then she soaped me and rinsed off the suds.
“I am allowed to swim in that cistern after I am cleaned,” I lied.
But she was silent as she towelled my skinny body dry.
“Lan’s good at washing me,” I announced to Mother later.
“That’s because she has helped care for her four younger siblings,” Mother said.
“She’s sulky, though” I complained, not finding anything worse to fault her with.
“She’s homesick, be nice to her.”
Mother had some of her older cotton dresses altered for Lan and bought her new sandals.
“Wah! So much clothes!” I exclaimed, feeling a bit jealous.
Lan beamed. She too, did not believe her eyes. “Oh, thank you so much, Mam. I have never had so many outfits in my life.”
“You can also visit your family the last weekend of each month,” my angel mother told her. That was when Lan cried.
“I quite like her now that she’s happier,” I announced importantly. Mother rolled her eyes heavenwards with an indulgent smile.
Papa firmly believed that ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ and Lan was instructed to ensure I had my quota. She had never tasted apples before and I magnanimously allowed her to enjoy the skins she pared off. That was the first time she tasted imported fruit. I began to grow closer to her as little by little she told me of her family’s hardship during meals when my parents dined out.
One day as I followed her around the back yard, I noticed blood trickling down between her legs. “You’re dying! Blood’s coming out of you!” I screeched, pointing.
Lan looked down. “Don’t be silly, that’s just my menses.” She dashed into the servant’s quarters, shutting the door on me. A few minutes later, she came out with a look of relief.
“Is it all gone?” I asked for she had cleaned herself up.
“I put on a pad to absorb the blood,” she explained, as she continued sweeping the yard.
“So it hasn’t stopped?” I pursued her around. And that was how I knew that females have the ‘curse’. It was also the beginning of my life education. As time went on, I learnt more about the state of our tiny world from Lan than from anyone else.
Unlike Mother who considered many subjects unsuitable for young ears, Lan had no problem answering my questions. With each story cajoled out of her, she would end by saying, “Don’t tell your mother, or I would be sent away, and you don’t want that, do you?”
“No,” I always promised.
An important aspect of my worldly education was the discovery of the one-eyed snake. One afternoon, Lan sat stitching a dress she had cut up from one of Mother’s rejects for her younger sister. As I watched her deft fingers pushing the needle in and out, in and out, I brought our conversation round to her mysterious ‘menses’. “How can women bleed and not die or at least be frightfully sick?” I asked.
“That’s because babies come from this blood,” Lan answered knowingly.
“You’re joking,” I said, “how?” I imagined my tiny baby self gurgling in a pool of blood.
“Well, a man puts his ‘one-eyed snake’ which hangs between his legs into a woman’s ‘hole’ between hers. And that’s how babies are made.”
As I still found difficulty in getting that information together, she made me lie down and lay on top of me, making humping movements with her hips. After a while, she got up with another ‘Don’t tell your mother,’ and resumed her stitching. I was still none the wiser.
But the ‘one-eyed snake’ fascinated me and I was determined to investigate.
One morning as Papa was having his shower, I opened the wooden-shuttered window in the corridor that overlooked the bathroom. ‘Hey!’ Papa yelled as he spun around. Sure enough there was this small appendage roosting in a small black patch, hanging between his legs – the one-eyed snake! I closed the window quickly, satisfied. Another bit of education completed.
Lan was my most constant after-school companion. She would walk up to meet me when I was dropped off by the local taxi that carted children around the neighbourhood to and from school. Then she would give me a cool dousing in the wet-floor bathroom, put a fresh dress on me and feed me my afternoon congee. All the while Lan would question me about my day and I would prattle away, happy to be home in the cool of our house.
All this while Kai Cheh would be having her afternoon nap before rousing herself to cook dinner at five o’clock. That was when Lan was required to help by chopping and slicing all the various ingredients in readiness for Kai Cheh’s masterly hand at the wok, the pots and the steamers. There was no shortage of praise from the grown-ups for her dishes.
“Why is Kai Cheh such a great cook?” I had once asked Mother.
“She’s trained, darling. She belongs to the Sisterhood of Service. You can tell by her white top and black pants and her long pigtail. That’s their uniform and they never marry.”
Lan was not trained in service, but she had a quick mind with a binful of fascinating stories to tell and Papa considered her cheap at twenty five dollars a month to her father with food and board included.